|Ethnicity||Tibetan people, and other Tibetic-speaking peoples such as Bhutanese and Nepalese|
|China (Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan); India (Ladakh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam); Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan); Nepal; Bhutan|
|6 million (2014)|
Division of Tibetic Cultural Areas
The Tibetic languages form a well-defined group of languages descended from Old Tibetan (7th to 9th centuries). According to Tournadre (2014), there are 50 languages, which split into over 200 dialects or could be grouped into 8 dialect continua. These languages are spoken in the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas in Gilgit-Baltistan, Aksai Chin, Ladakh, Nepal, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Bhutan. Classical Tibetan is the major literary language, particularly for its use in Buddhist literature.
Tibetan languages are spoken by some 6 million people, not all of whom are Tibetans. With the worldwide spread of Tibetan Buddhism, the Tibetan language has spread into the western world and can be found in many Buddhist publications and prayer materials; with some western students learning the language for translation of Tibetan texts. Outside Lhasa itself, Lhasa Tibetan is spoken by approximately 200,000 exile speakers who have moved from modern-day Tibet to India and other countries. Tibetan is also spoken by groups of ethnic minorities in Tibet who have lived in close proximity to Tibetans for centuries, but nevertheless retain their own languages and cultures.
Although some of the Qiang peoples of Kham are classified by China as ethnic Tibetans (see Gyalrongic languages; Gyalrong people are identified as 'Tibetan' in China), the Qiangic languages are not Tibetan, but rather form their own branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family.
Classical Tibetan was not a tonal language, but many varieties such as Central and Khams Tibetan have developed tone registers. Amdo and Ladakhi-Balti are without tone. Tibetan morphology can generally be described as agglutinative.
Marius Zemp (2018) hypothesizes that Tibetan originated as a pidgin with the West Himalayish language Zhangzhung as its superstratum, and Rgyalrongic as its substratum (both languages are part of the broader Sino-Tibetan family). However, there are many grammatical differences between the Rgyalrongic and Tibetic languages; Rgyalrongic tend to use prefixes such as *kə-, *tə-, etc., while Tibetic languages use suffixes such as -pa/-ba, -ma, -po/-bo, -mo, etc.
Only a few language clusters in the world are derived from a common language which is identical to or closely related to an old literary language. This small group includes the Tibetic languages, as descendents from Old Tibetan (7th–9th centuries), but also the Romance languages with Latin, the Arabic languages (or "dialects") with Classical Arabic, the Sinitic languages with Middle Chinese, the modern Indic languages with Vedic Sanskrit.
The more divergent languages are spoken in the north and east, likely due to language contact with the Qiangic, Rgyalrongic languages. The divergence exhibited in Khalong may also be due to language shift. In addition, there is Baima, which retains an apparent Qiangic substratum, and has multiple layers of borrowing from Amdo, Khams, and Zhongu, but does not correspond to any established branch of Tibetic.
Tournadre & Suzuki (2023)
- South-eastern section (14 groups):
- Eastern section (11 groups):
- North-eastern section (14 groups):
- Tsho Ngönpo (or Kokonor)
- Rwanak (Banak) pastoralist group
- Hwari (Pari)
- Mewa pastoralists’ group (with settlements in Kham)
- Washül pastoralists’group (with migrations into Kham)
- Gorkä (divergent)
- Gyälrongo-spheric Amdo (divergent)
- Dungnak and rTarmnyik (near Western Yughur in Gansu) (divergent)
- Central section (8 groups):
- Tö pastoralists’ dialects (Drogpä Tö-kä)
- Eastern Tö cultivators’ dialects (Sharchok Rongpä Tö-kä)
- Western Tö cultivators’ dialects (Nubchok Rongpä Tö-kä)
- Southern section (7 groups):
- South-western section (9 groups):
- Western section (8 groups):
- North-western section (7 groups):
Tournadre (2014) classifies the Tibetic languages as eight geolinguistic continua, consisting of 50 languages and over 200 dialects. This is an updated version of his work in 2008. The Eastern and Southeastern branches have lower internal mutual intelligibility, but it is more limited in the Northwestern branch and between certain southern and northern Khams dialects. These continua are spread across five countries with one exception, this being Sangdam, a Khams dialect in Kachin, Myanmar.
- North-Western: Ladakhi, Zangskari, Balti, Purki
- Western: Spiti, Garzha, Khunu, Jad
- Central: Dbus, Tsang, Phenpo, Lhokha, Tö, Kongpo (in Kongpo with Basum)
- South-Western: Sherpa and Jirel; other languages/dialects along the Sino-Nepalese border: Humla, Mugu, Dolpo, Lo-ke, Nubri, Tsum, Langtang, Kyirong, Yolmo, Gyalsumdo, Kagate, Lhomi, Walungge, Tokpe Gola.
- Southern: Dzongkha, Drengjong, Tsamang, Dhromo Lakha, Dur Brokkat, Mera Sakteng Brokpa-ke
- South-Eastern: Hor Nagchu, Hor Bachen, Yushu, Pembar, Rongdrak, Minyak, Dzayul, Derong-Jol, Chaktreng, Muli-Dappa, Semkyi Nyida
- Eastern: Drugchu, Khöpokhok, Thewo-Chone, Baima, Sharkhok, Palkyi (or Pashi; four dialects, including Chos-rje), and Zhongu
Tournadre (2005, 2008)
- Central Tibetan
- The basis of Standard Tibetan that includes various Nepalese varieties
The other languages (Thewo-Chone, Zhongu, Khalong, Dongwang, Gserpa, Zitsadegu, Drugchu, Baima) are not mutually intelligible, but are not known well enough to classify. mDungnag, a Tibetan language spoken in Gansu, is also divergent and is not mutually intelligible with either Khams or Amdo.
According to Bradley, the languages cluster as follows (dialect information from the Tibetan Dialects Project at the University of Bern):
- Western Archaic Tibetan (non-tonal), including Ladakhi, Balti and Burig
- Amdo Tibetan (including Thewo-Chone) (non-tonal)
- Khams Tibetan (tonal)
- Western Innovative Tibetan (Lahuli–Spiti) (slightly tonal)
- Central Tibetan (slightly tonal)
- Northern Tibetan (slightly tonal)
- Southern Tibetan (slightly tonal)
Some classifications group Khams and Amdo together as Eastern Tibetan (not to be confused with East Bodish, whose speakers are not ethnically Tibetan). Some, like Tournadre, break up Central Tibetan. Phrases such as 'Central Tibetan' and 'Central Bodish' may or may not be synonymous: Southern (Central) Tibetan can be found as Southern Bodish, for example; 'Central Tibetan' may mean dBus or all tonal lects apart from Khams; 'Western Bodish' may be used for the non-tonal western lects while 'Western Tibetan' is used for the tonal lects, or 'Bodish' may even be used for other branches of the Tibeto-Kanauri languages.
Amdo Tibetan has 70% lexical similarity with Central Tibetan and Khams Tibetan, while Khams Tibetan has 80% lexical similarity with Central Tibetan.
Most Tibetic languages are written in one of two Indic scripts. Standard Tibetan and most other Tibetic languages are written in the Tibetan script with a historically conservative orthography (see below) that helps unify the Tibetan-language area. Some other Tibetan languages (in India and Nepal) are written in the related Devanagari script, which is also used to write Hindi, Nepali and many other languages. However, some Ladakhi and Balti speakers write with the Urdu script; this occurs almost exclusively in Pakistan. The Tibetan script fell out of use in Pakistani Baltistan hundreds of years ago upon the region's adoption of Islam. However, increased concern among Balti people for the preservation of their language and traditions, especially in the face of strong Punjabi cultural influence throughout Pakistan, has fostered renewed interest in reviving the Tibetan script and using it alongside the Perso-Arabic script. Many shops in Baltistan's capital Skardu in Pakistan's "Northern Areas" region have begun supplementing signs written in the Perso-Arabic script with signs written in the Tibetan script. Baltis see this initiative not as separatist but rather as part of an attempt to preserve the cultural aspects of their region which has shared a close history with neighbours like Kashmiris and Punjabis since the arrival of Islam in the region many centuries ago.
Old Tibetan phonology is rather accurately rendered by the script. The finals were pronounced devoiced although they are written as voiced, the prefix letters assimilated their voicing to the root letters. The graphic combinations hr and lh represent voiceless and not necessarily aspirate correspondences to r and l respectively. The letter ' was pronounced as a voiced guttural fricative before vowels but as homorganic prenasalization before consonants. Whether the gigu verso had phonetic meaning or not remains controversial.
For instance, Srongbtsan Sgampo would have been pronounced [sroŋpʦan zɡampo] (now pronounced [sɔ́ŋʦɛ̃ ɡʌ̀mpo] in Lhasa Tibetan) and 'babs would have been pronounced [mbaps] (pronounced [bapˤ][dubious ] in Lhasa Tibetan).
Already in the 9th century the process of cluster simplification, devoicing and tonogenesis had begun in the central dialects can be shown with Tibetan words transliterated in other languages, particularly Middle Chinese but also Uyghur.
The concurrence of the evidence indicated above enables us to form the following outline of the evolution of Tibetan. In the 9th century, as shown by the bilingual Tibetan–Chinese treaty of 821–822 found in front of Lhasa's Jokhang, the complex initial clusters had already been reduced, and the process of tonogenesis was likely well underway.
The next change took place in Tsang (Gtsang) dialects: The ra-tags were altered into retroflex consonants, and the ya-tags became palatals.
Later on the superscribed letters and finals d and s disappeared, except in the east and west. It was at this stage that the language spread in Lahul and Spiti, where the superscribed letters were silent, the d and g finals were hardly heard, and as, os, us were ai, oi, ui. The words introduced from Tibet into the border languages at that time differ greatly from those introduced at an earlier period.
The other changes are more recent and restricted to Ü and Tsang. In Ü, the vowel sounds a, o, u have now mostly umlauted to ä, ö, ü when followed by the coronal sounds i, d, s, l and n. The same holds for Tsang with the exception of l which merely lengthens the vowel. The medials have become aspirate tenues with a low intonation, which also marks the words having a simple initial consonant; while the former aspirates and the complex initials simplified in speech are uttered with a high tone, shrill and rapidly.
Proto-Tibetic, the hypothetical proto-language ancestral to the Tibetic languages, has been reconstructed by Tournadre (2014). Proto-Tibetic is similar to, but not identical to, written Classical Literary Tibetan. The following phonological features are characteristic of Proto-Tibetic (Tournadre 2014: 113).
- The prefixes *s(ǝ)-, *d(ǝ)-/g(ǝ)-, *m(ǝ)-, and *b(ǝ)-, which have been retained from Proto-Tibeto-Burman. *s(ǝ)- is primarily used with animals and body parts, as well as *d(ǝ)-/*g(ǝ)- and *m(ǝ)-/*r(ǝ)-.
- Palatalization of dental and alveolar consonants before y (/j/).
- Consonant change from lateral to dental position after /m/ (e.g., *ml > *md).
- Distinctive aspirated initial stops. This phenomenon is attested by alternating aspirated and non-aspirated consonants in Old Tibetan orthography. Examples include gcig ~ gchig (གཅིག་ ~ གཆིག་) 'one'; phyin-chad ~ phyin-cad (ཕྱིན་ཆད་ ~ ཕྱིན་ཅད་) 'from now on'; ci ~ chi (ཅི་ ~ ཆི་) 'what'; and cu ~ chu (ཅུ་ ~ ཆུ་) 'water'.
Reconstructed Proto-Tibetic forms from Tournadre (2014) include:
- *g(ǝ)-tɕik 'one'
- *g(ǝ)-nyis 'two'
- *g(ǝ)-su- 'three'
- *b(ǝ)-ʑi 'four'
- *l(ǝ)-ŋa 'five'
- *d(ǝ)-ruk 'six'
- *b(ǝ)-dun 'seven'
- *b(ǝ)-rgyat 'eight'
- *d(ǝ)-gu 'nine'
- *b(ǝ)-tɕu 'ten'
- *s(ǝ)-dik-pa 'scorpion'
- *s(ǝ)-bal 'frog'
- *s(ǝ)-tak 'tiger'
- *s(ǝ)-b-rul 'snake'
- *s(ǝ)-pra 'monkey'
- *s(ǝ)-kra 'hair'
- *s(ǝ)-nyiŋ 'heart'
- *s(ǝ)-na 'nose'
- *d(ǝ)-myik 'eye'
- *m(ǝ)-go 'head'
- *r(ǝ)-na 'ear'
Pre-Tibetic is a hypothetical pre-formation stage of Proto-Tibetic.
*ty-, *ly-, *sy- were not palatalized in Pre-Tibetic, but underwent palatalization in Proto-Tibetic (Tournadre 2014: 113-114). Posited sound changes from Pre-Tibetic to Proto-Tibetic include *ty- > *tɕ-, *sy- > *ɕ-, *tsy- > *tɕ-, and *ly- > *ʑ-. However, Tournadre (2014: 114) notes that many Bodish languages such as Basum, Tamang, and Kurtöp (East Bodish) have not undergone these changes (e.g., Bake (Basum) ti 'what' vs. Proto-Tibetic *tɕ(h)i and Bake tɨ 'one' vs. Proto-Tibetic *g(ǝ)-tɕ(h)ik; Kurtöp Hla: 'iron' and Bumthap lak 'iron' vs. Proto-Tibetic *ltɕaks).
Some Pre-Tibetic reconstructions, along with reconstructed Proto-Tibetic forms and orthographic Classical Literary Tibetan, from Tournadre (2014: 114-116) are listed below.
|Gloss||Pre-Tibetic||Proto-Tibetic||Classical Literary Tibetan|
|one||*g(ǝ)-tyik||*g(ǝ)-tɕ(h)ik||gcig / gchig གཅིག་ / གཆིག (Old Tibetan)|
|big||*tye||*tɕ(h)e||che ཆེ་ (Old Tibetan)|
|ten||*b(ǝ)-tyu||*b(ǝ)-tɕu||bcu / bchu བཅུ་ / བཆུ་ (Old Tibetan)|
|what||*tyi||*tɕ(h)i||ci / chi ཅི་ / ཆི་ (Old Tibetan)|
|to cut (past stem)||*b(ǝ)-tsyat||*b(ǝ)-tɕat||bcad བཅད་|
|flea||*ldi||*ldʑi||lji ལྗི་, 'ji ་འཇི་|
|iron||*s(ǝ)-lak(s) > *l-sak(s) > *l-tsyak(s)||*ltɕaks||lcags ལྕགས་|
|to suppress||*bnans||*mnans||mnand (Old Tibetan)|
|eye||*d(ǝ)myik||dmyig དམྱིག་ (Old Tibetan); mig|
|flower||*mentok||men-tog མེན་ཏོག (Old Tibetan); ་me-tog|
Comparison of numerals
|GLOSS||Ü-Tsang (Middle)||Amdo||Khams||CLASSICAL TIBETAN|
For the Central or Eastern Tibetic languages:
- Sagart, Laurent; Jacques, Guillaume; Lai, Yunfan; Ryder, Robin; Thouzeau, Valentin; Greenhill, Simon J.; List, Johann-Mattis (2019), "Dated language phylogenies shed light on the history of Sino-Tibetan", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116 (21): 10317–10322, doi:10.1073/pnas.1817972116, PMC 6534992, PMID 31061123.
- "Origin of Sino-Tibetan language family revealed by new research". ScienceDaily (Press release). May 6, 2019.
- Tournadre, Nicolas (2014). "The Tibetic languages and their classification". In Owen-Smith, Thomas; Hill, Nathan W. (eds.). Trans-Himalayan Linguistics: Historical and Descriptive Linguistics of the Himalayan Area. De Gruyter. pp. 103–129. ISBN 978-3-11-031074-0. (preprint)
- Tournadre, Nicolas. 2014. "The Tibetic languages and their classification." In Trans-Himalayan linguistics, historical and descriptive linguistics of the Himalayan area. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Zemp, Marius. 2018. On the origins of Tibetan. Proceedings of the 51st International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics (2018). Kyoto: Kyoto University.
- Tournadre, Nicolas; Suzuki, Hiroyuki (2023). The Tibetic Languages: an introduction to the family of languages derived from Old Tibetan. Paris: LACITO. p. 660. ISBN 978-2-490768-08-0.
- Katia Chirkova, 2008, "On the position of Báimǎ within Tibetan", in Lubotsky et al. (eds), Evidence and Counter-Evidence, vol. 2.
- Tournadre, Nicolas (2008). "Arguments against the Concept of 'Conjunct'/'Disjunct' in Tibetan" (PDF). In B. Huber; M. Volkart; P. Widmer; P. Schwieger (eds.). Chomolangma, Demawend und Kasbek: Festschrift für Roland Bielmeier zu Seinem 65. Geburtstag, Vol. 1. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. pp. 282–283. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-20.
- Sun, Jackson T.-S. 2021. Gser-Rdo: A New Tibetic Language Across the Rngaba-Dkarmdzes Border.
- N. Tournadre (2005) "L'aire linguistique tibétaine et ses divers dialectes." Lalies, 2005, n°25, p. 7–56 
- Shao, Mingyuan 邵明园 (2018). Hexi Zoulang binwei Zangyu Dongnahua yanjiu 河西走廊濒危藏语东纳话研究 [Study on the mDungnag dialect, an endangered Tibetan language in Hexi Corridor]. Guangzhou: Zhongshan University Publishing House 中山大学出版社.
- Bradley (1997)
- "China". Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Nineteenth Edition. 2016. Archived from the original on 2016-09-09.
- "Bodish Numerals (Eugene Chan)". Archived from the original on 2012-03-05.
- Beyer, Stephan V. (1992). The Classical Tibetan Language. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-1099-4.
- Denwood, Philip (1999). Tibetan. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 90-272-3803-0.
- Denwood, Philip (2007). "The Language History of Tibetan". In Roland Bielmeier; Felix Haller (eds.). Linguistics of the Himalayas and beyond. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 47–70. ISBN 978-3-11-019828-7.
- van Driem, George (2001). Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region containing an Introduction to the Symbiotic Theory of Language. Brill. ISBN 9004103902.
- AHP43 Amdo Tibetan Language
- Comparative Dictionary of Tibetan Dialects (CDTD)
- Languages on the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas — Nicolas Tournadre
- Overview of Old Tibetan Synchronic phonology by Nathan Hill
- L'évolution des langues et les facteurs écolinguistiques : le cas des langues d'éleveurs et des langues d'agriculteurs sur le Haut Plateau tibétain at CNRS-LACITO
- China's Tibet policy continued attempt at erasing Tibetan language